Bioethics

Mindfulness and morality

Every day, for about thirty-five minutes, I sit cross-legged on a cushion with my eyes shut. I regulate my breath, titrating its speed against numbers in my head; I watch my breath surging and trickling in and out of my chest; I feel the air at the point of entry and exit; I export my mind to a point just beyond my nose and pour the breath into that point. When my mind wanders off, I tug it back.

The practice is systematic and arduous. In some ways it is complex: it involves 16 distinct stages. When I am tired, and the errant mind won’t come quietly back on track, I find it helpful to summarise the injunctions to myself as:

  • I am here
  • This is it

I alternate the emphases: ‘I am here’: ‘I am here’; ‘I am here’; ‘This is it’; ‘This is it’; ‘This is it.’

I note (although not usually, and not ideally, when I’m in the middle of the practice) that each of these connotations presumes something about the existence of an ‘I’. This is less obvious with the second proposition, but clearly there: ‘This’ is something that requires a subject. Continue reading

Why edited embryos won’t lead to designer babies or eugenics (unless we want it too)

The UK became the first country to officially approve gene editing research in human embryos on Monday. The HFEA decision means experiments in which the genes of embryos are manipulated will likely begin at the Francis Crick Institute within the next few months.

Gene editing (GE) technologies are immensely powerful. They have already been used to manipulate mosquitos so they cannot carry diseases like malaria or Zika. They have been used in medicine to reprogram human immune cells to target cancer. When used for research purposes, they promise to greatly increase our knowledge of genetics and human heredity. This will lead to a better understanding of disease, which in turn will allow better treatments – including better drugs.

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Should we prevent Zika microcephaly using birth control?

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford, @Neonatalethics

The World Health Organisation is to hold an emergency meeting after considerable concern about the zika virus in South America. The epidemic has been of considerable concern particularly because it has been linked to microcephaly (unusually small heads) in newborn babies that can lead to potentially devastating brain problems.

There is fear that this virus (if it is the cause) could spread throughout the Americas, including North America. There is no vaccine or treatment for the virus, and no known treatment for children who suffer brain damage in the womb. Officials in Columbia, Ecuador, El Salavador and Jamaica have recommended that women avoid or defer becoming pregnant to prevent their babies being affected. But is it ethical to use birth control to control Zika microcephaly? Continue reading

Should vegans eat meat to be ethically consistent? And other moral puzzles from the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

Should vegans eat meat to be ethically consistent? And other moral puzzles from the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

The latest issue of The Journal of Practical Ethics has just been published online, and it includes several fascinating essays (see the abstracts below). In this blog post, I’d like to draw attention to one of them in particular, because it seemed to me to be especially creative and because it was written by an undergraduate student! The essay – “How Should Vegans Live?” – is by Oxford student Xavier Cohen. I had the pleasure of meeting Xavier several months ago when he presented an earlier draft of his essay at a lively competition in Oxford: he and several others were finalists for the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics, for which I was honored to serve as one of the judges.

In a nutshell, Xavier argues that ethical vegans – that is, vegans who refrain from eating animal products specifically because they wish to reduce harm to animals – may actually be undermining their own aims. This is because, he argues, many vegans are so strict about the lifestyle they adopt (and often advocate) that they end up alienating people who might otherwise be willing to make less-drastic changes to their behavior that would promote animal welfare overall. Moreover, by focusing too narrowly on the issue of directly refraining from consuming animal products, vegans may fail to realize how other actions they take may be indirectly harming animals, perhaps even to a greater degree.

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Defaults, status quo, and disagreements about sex

Scott Alexander has a thoughtful piece about who gets to set the default in disagreements about what is reasonable. He describes a couple therapy session where one member is bored with his sex life and goes kinky clubbing, to the anger of his strongly monogamous partner. Yet both want to stay together at least for the sake of the kids. Assuming the answer is an either-or situation where one has to give up on their demand (likely not the ideal response in an actual couple therapy setting), the issue seems to boil down to who has the unreasonable demand.

It resonated with another article I came across in my news flow today: What It’s Like to Be Chemically Castrated. This article is an interview with a man who wanted to be chemically castrated in order to manage his sex addiction and save his 45-year marriage. Is this an unreasonable intervention?

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Engineering a Consensus:   Edit Embryos for Research, Not Reproduction

Written by Dr Chris Gyngell, Dr Tom Douglas and Professor Julian Savulescu

A crucial international summit on gene editing continues today in Washington DC. Organised by the US National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the U.K.’s Royal Society, the summit promises to be a pivotal point in the history of the gene editing technologies.

Gene editing (GE) is a truly revolutionary technology, potentially allowing the genetic bases of life to be manipulated at will. It has already been used to create malaria-fighting mosquitoes, drought resistant wheat, hornless cows and cancer killing immune cells. All this despite the fact GE only become widely used in the past few years. The potential applications of GE in a decade are difficult to imagine. It may transform the food we eat, the animals we farm, and the way we battle disease. Continue reading

Guest Post: What puts the ‘mental’ in mental illness?

Written by Anke Snoek

Macquarie University

I have a 3 year old who doesn’t eat. He seems not to be interested in food in general. We were offered many explanations for why he doesn’t eat and most specialists suspect a psychological source for his lack of appetite. But recently a friend suggested that maybe there is something wrong with the muscles in his mouth that makes it hard to swallow. I wondered: why didn’t I get offered more of these physical explanations as opposed to psychological ones? What makes ‘not eating’ almost by definition a mental disorder for most people? What other behaviour are we inclined to label as a mental disorder rather than staying open for other explanations? Continue reading

The reproducibility problem and the status of bioethics

There is a long overdue crisis of confidence in the biological and medical sciences. It would be nice – though perhaps rather ambitious – to think that it could transmute into a culture of humility.

A recent comment in Nature observes that: ‘An unpublished 2015 survey by the American Society for Cell Biology found that more than two-thirds of respondents had on at least one occasion been unable to reproduce published results. Biomedical researchers from drug companies have reported that one-quarter or fewer of high-profile papers are reproducible.’

Reproducibility of results is one of the girders underpinning conventional science. The Nature article acknowledges this: it is accompanied by a cartoon showing the crumbling edifice of ‘Robust Science.’

As the unwarranted confidence of scientists teeters and falls, what will – and what should – happen to bioethics?

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Gene editing and eugenics

A study published last week in the journal Cell has led to speculation that a powerful new gene editing technique is about to be developed.

Gene editing has received widespread media coverage over the past few months. Most of the excitement has centred on a specific gene editing technique, the CRISPR-cas9 system. Research conducted with CRISPR-cas9 on human embryos has been highly controversial, at least partly because some people fear it will lead to gene editing being used to alter the human germline for clinical applications, and will have unpredictable effects on future generations.

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Mandatory submission of patient information about FGM: a pointless, damaging, discriminatory mess

Brenda Kelly and Charles Foster

Female Genital Mutilation (‘FGM’) is a term covering various procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons (WHO, 2012). It can be associated with immediate and long-term physical and psychological health problems. FGM is prevalent in Africa, Middle East and South East Asia as well as within diaspora communities from these countries

The Government, keenly aware of the political capital in FGM, has come down hard. The Serious Crime Act 2015 makes it mandatory to report to the police cases of FGM in girls under the age of 18. While we have some issues with that requirement, it is at least concordant with the general law of child protection.

What is of more concern is the requirement, introduced by the cowardly device of a Ministerial Direction and after the most cursory consultation (in which the GMC and the RCOG hardly covered themselves in glory), by which healthcare professionals, from October 2015, are legally obliged to submit patient-identifiable information to the Department of Health (‘DOH’) on every female patient with FGM who presents for whatever reason, through the Enhanced Dataset Collection (EDC). The majority of these women will have undergone FGM in their country of origin prior to coming to the UK. Continue reading

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